Less than twenty-four hours after NJPW crowned the winner of this year’s Best of the Super Juniors in Japan, they awarded the trophy and golden jacket to this year’s stateside Super J-Cup winner. The tournament lineup was pretty stacked, more inter-promotional than last year’s, and felt way more canonical than the average pandemic-era NJPW USA show. The winner, El Phantasmo for the second year in a row, was “controversial,” and the show overall was an extremely mixed bag that often made me wish I was watching Triplemanía on YouTube instead.
Before we get to the show, a note on the production: like so many matches and shows this year, the 2020 Super J-Cup would have definitely been an easier watch if it wasn’t soundtracked by silence and often-awkward commentary. I know some people have adjusted to this kind of atmosphere and are sick of people bringing it up, but I also know people who have watched like two matches this whole year because COVID-era production bugs them so much, so I think it’s worth noting. How a crowd would have reacted to the performers and match results on this particular show is also an interesting “what if.”
First round match: Chris Bey def. Clark Connors
The tournament started with LA Dojo boy Clark Connors losing to the guy who would challenge for the Impact World Championship like an hour later on a different show, Chris Bey. Bey mostly dominated Connors with Connors getting in some shine spots before losing, and overall, the match was pretty basic and not either man’s best outing. The most I got out of this match was that Kelly bringing up the contrasting personalities of the straightlaced Connors vs. the finesser Bey made me want to see these two as an odd couple tag team or something.
First round match: ACH def. TJP
ACH vs. TJP quickly showed how much more experienced these guys are than the two in the opener. They looked like they had pretty good chemistry, and TJP keeping ACH grounded with submissions for a while put the former NXT wrestler in a more sympathetic position than he was already. However, this match mostly made me irritated I was spending ten minutes of my life watching a corona-truther as the U.S. rapidly approaches 300,000 COVID-19 deaths (insert the appropriate match length to get here to get my takeaway from every TJP match I’ve encountered during the pandemic.)
First round match: Blake Christian def. Rey Horus
Blake Christian vs. Rey Horus was the first match of the 2020 Super J-Cup that really plays up the high-flyer vs. high-flyer dynamic, and it was probably the best of the first round. It wasn’t so much a clash of the acrobatic titans as it was a clear demonstration that one of these guys (the one who’s been wrestling for thirteen years) is on a way higher level than the other (who’s been wrestling for three years.)
Christian has way more hype around him right now because he’s a GCW guy while Horus has been mainly in ROH and MLW for the past couple of years, and with no offense meant to Christian, that’s kind of a shame! It’s a bummer that this very experienced luchador who showed up looking sick as hell and did literally everything better than his opponent was the guy who didn’t make it to the semi-finals and isn’t a bigger deal in the U.S. wrestling scene. I’m not saying Support Blake Christian Less 2k21, but I am saying Support Rey Horus More 2k21.
First round match: El Phantasmo def. Lio Rush
El Phantasmo defeating Lio Rush was a surprising and disappointing result that set up more disappointment to come. Rush was arguably the biggest name in this year’s the Super J-Cup, he and NJPW hyped up his participation in the tournament more than anyone else’s, and he looked great in his first-round match – and then he lost it, and lost it to a low-blow.
After Rush vs. Phantasmo, the 2020 Super J-Cup left the impression that maybe NJPW didn’t realize the value of the talent they had booked. Bey and ACH making it to the semi-finals was great, but then on the other side of the bracket, we got ELP vs. Christian rather than any of the cooler possible combinations. I’ll get back to this point after the final and get more into the ELP of it all, but right now I’ll say it was really bizarre for NJPW to book Lio Rush for this tournament, for everyone to make a big deal about booking him (including Hiromu on his YouTube channel), and to have him lose in the first round in a stupid way.
JR Kratos and Danny Limelight def. Rocky Romero and Fred Rosser
After the first round, we got a solid tag match of four wrestlers who have become NJPW Strong regulars (one also, of course, a longtime Regular NJPW regular.) Kratos looks like he should be destroying territory-days babyfaces with some Country Name Nerve Hold and wrestles like a monster, and he and Tom Lawlor are the two Strong wrestlers who NJPW needs to please bring to Japan when more international travel is possible, please.
Semifinal match: ACH def. Chris Bey
ACH vs. Chris Bey, in their only singles match aside from one at PCW in May 2018, is the Super J-Cup 2020 match I’d get closest to recommending. These two have good chemistry and impressive athletic abilities and deliver an entertaining contest filled with plenty of cool moves. Their contrasting personas also easily added some drama to the match, and I hope some company picks that up and runs some kind of rivalry or angle with them.
Speaking of angles, this match gave ACH one about back damage going into the final, but everyone watching – at least everyone watching from somewhere that WWE is the most dominant wrestling presence – was also experiencing another story. Fan support for ACH right now doesn’t just come from his wrestling talent, personality, and presentation as a babyface, but from a belief that he deserves better for his wrestling career than what he got in NXT. When ACH has shown up on American NJPW programming this year, it’s sparked hope that this could lead to NJPW actually doing something with him – meaning, doing something with him in Japan or on an actual major U.S. show, whichever is possible first. This meta-story of “Will a major wrestling company do something with ACH?” was a more significant angle going into the Super J-Cup 2020 final than a back injury, babyface vs. heel, or the sanctity of the tournament.
Semifinal match: El Phantasmo def. Blake Christian
We got our other finalist through a match that I think made Blake Christian look better than his first-round showing. There was a time last year when NJPW could have, in theory, done a mass Pointing Spiderman Meme match of Will Ospreay, El Phantasmo, Flip Gordon, Alex Zayne, and Blake Christian; Christian is very easily identified as a Type of Guy. The aggression he put in against ELP here made him look like he could surpass the easy label through his potential as a babyface.
The wildest part of this match is its insane-in-a-bad-way finish that makes Christian look like the dumbest wrestler alive. Christian climbs to the top turnbuckle while ELP is prone on the mat, Phantasmo shows that he’s clearly ready for what’s coming and actually beckons at Christian, we see Christian see ELP beckon at him, and then our hero goes for the elbow drop anyway. Phantasmo easily dodges it, then hits a superkick for the win. This finish was so inexplicable and made Blake Christian look so dumb that I’m surprised they didn’t reshoot this match, or at least that part of it. It was just a baffling thing to see.
Hikuleo and Kenta def. Ren Narita and Kevin Knight
The most important part of this match and this whole show was obviously the return of future legend Ren Narita, but Kevin Knight’s debut was notable too. The new LA Dojo trainee mostly got beaten up in this match (and did a good job at this valuable wrestling skill), but also showed off an impressive dropkick in one of his rare moments of offense. He didn’t leave a super strong impression in his first match, but he left a good one.
(Also, I enjoyed that while Narita and Knight were both announced as six feet tall when they were standing next to each other, it was very easy to see that Narita’s “six feet” was a few inches shorter.)
Final match: El Phantasmo def. ACH, challenges Hiromu for Wrestle Kingdom match
The last match of the night saw ACH go toe to toe with the man who is sadly the most appropriate person to call the current “final boss” of the Super J-Cup and lose. It was disappointing in the same way Rush losing in the first round was disappointing.
Commentary tries to sell ELP’s victories as tainting the legacy of the Super J-Cup and tries to package him as “controversial,” but that’s not really what’s happening. NJPW hurt the legacy of the Super J-Cup by doing it as a U.S. house show tour last year much more than a heel doing typical heel things could. Also, nothing that’s happened on NJPW of America shows since MSG have been significant enough to be “controversial;” people just sometimes don’t like them. The closest ELP has come to actual controversy in NJPW was his autism joke after winning the 2019 Cup, and that really just made the performer look like a dumbass at best. It doesn’t mean anything for this guy to break a trophy and rip up a jacket.
It does mean something, however, for NJPW to bring all this exciting talent into the tournament and then give the win to the same guy who won last year, leading to a Wrestle Kingdom match that nobody wanted – and that, if ELP wins, would take away the IWPG Junior Heavyweight Championship shot from the BOSJ winner. (I’d bet actual money on still getting Hiromu vs. Ishimori on 1/5, but the principle of not yanking prizes from tournament winners still stands!)
I get that ELP is the person in this group with the most established character in NJPW right now, but when that character does a more generic version of Sami Callihan and twenty other people’s I’m edgy and ~I have a live microphone~ thing and I can easily think of high-fliers in at least nine promotions who are better in the ring, that really just drives home how irritating it was for NJPW to shotgun this guy to the top of the junior division and make him this big character presence last summer for BritWres alliance reasons.
That’s a lot to say about an NJPW tournament final without talking about the match at all which kind of sucks to do in a review, but I think that sums up my impression of the 2020 Super J-Cup more than anything. My biggest takeaways from this show are:
- Irritation at TV show development!
- I get that Rush and ACH were not available until fairly recently and some of the guys in this tournament are contracted elsewhere but if NJPW doesn’t really try to snap up the actual cool wrestlers in this tournament up when things get closer to normal then maybe they should completely give up on booking their own American wrestlers at all and just focus on making NJPW of America the place you can see the stars from Japan who otherwise don’t work over here
- Watch Pagano vs. Chessman from Triplemanía